Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Amuse-Biatch Presents “The Rrrruff!! Guide to Eating,” Part 2 (Do Not Read This If You Are Squeamish; We Mean It)

As promised, possums, here is Part 2 of James Hamilton-Paterson’s article on the more unusual regional dishes of the Philippines. At the risk of sounding schoolmarmish, we must again stress that this is not for the faint of heart or stomach, and should probably not be read around mealtimes. It describes the cooking of taboo animals and methods for killing animals that would make any PETA member’s every hair stand on end. Do not read if you cannot handle it.

Certainly the article contains an element of bravado and provocation and épatez les bourgeois who are reading this British newspaper in the first place (we would also argue this is a particularly British phenomenon; one would never see this in The New York Times Food Section). We nonetheless think the article is extremely informative and has a point to make about prejudices and received ideas.

Also, have a look at this very interesting academic paper from the University of Southern California. It corroborates Hamilton-Paterson’s reporting in the process of analyzing how the practice of dog-eating leads to discrimination against Filipinos in the U.S. (The authors note that dog-eating was outlawed in the Philippines in 1998; Hamilton-Paterson’s article was written two years before the ban).

“The Rrrruff!! Guide to Eating,” Part 2

By James Hamilton-Paterson

The Guardian (London), May 18, 1996

Like any other civilized people, Filipinos make a firm distinction between pet and pot. Times would have to be hard indeed before old Rover made the supreme sacrifice. Dog dishes are often referred to generically as asosena. This is a felicitous pun on the Spanish word lily (azucena), that deathly plant introduced for their cemeteries by the Philippines’ first colonisers. But in Tagalog aso is dog, while cena is Spanish for supper; so with a small triumphal act of semantics, an indigenous eastern dish flowers to outrage the European invader.

Up in northern Luzon one can eat a satisfactory array of dog recipes, though in the town of Baguio the meat is often sold from door to door already butchered, and gastronomes will tell you it’s important to know the breed you’re cooking, as well as its age, and vary your recipe accordingly. This is where a discriminating palate pays off, since true dog lovers will know whether the dish’s lead character was a dog or a bitch, especially one on heat. Of course puppies, like veal, need bland and delicate cooking.

Filipinos, like the people of many other nations, generally kill their animals by cutting their throats and keeping the blood as a separate ingredient. One reason for this may be that bloodless meat tastes less malansa – an impossible word to translate since English doesn’t recognise what it defines. Dictionaries usually give something like “the smell of fresh fish”; but that’s not precisely it, and both fish and meat may be described as tasting malansa. It’s interesting to discover a sensory perception that is simply not recognised by one’s own culture. Bearing this in mind (for Filipinos consider malansa unpleasant), there are half a dozen common ways of cooking dog – other than straight roasting over an open fire – and plenty of regional variations. It should be remembered that most rural Filipino cookery is of the “open fire” rather than the “oven” type, which gives a distinctive flavour.

Kalderetang aso (caldera, of course, is Spanish for cauldron): A classic dog dish. Garlic and onions are fried in coconut oil until brown, and reserved. The meat (chopped Chinese style, with the bones) is fried in the same oil until tender, then the onions and garlic are put back in and a cupful of soy sauce added. When that has bubbled and seethed enough, any or all of the following can be added: tomato ketchup, peanut butter, margarine, peppercorns, chili, pickles, potatoes, carrots. The ketchup and margarine give a debased and over-sweet taste and may safely be omitted. The peanut butter imparts a slightly Indonesian flavour. To this is added a bottle of San Miguel beer – one bottle per dog – and the whole thing allowed to stew gently for an hour. A fancy asosena might even include pineapple chunks. Adobong aso (adobo being Spanish for pickling sauce): This gets rid of any malansa flavour by a different method.

Here the meat is boiled first in coconut vinegar and soy sauce. It can be embellished into adobong aso sa gata by adding turmeric and fresh ginger and then coconut milk at the end. Depending on the quality of the dog, the flavour emerges rich and clear and muttony. Bulacan dog: In Bulacan Province they have a method of boiling the meat with tamarind, onions and garlic to achieve a good, sour, sinigang flavour. Then the meat is patted dry and fried in plenty of oil. It is served with a dip made of soy sauce, chili and ketchup. This is delicious, though I can’t recommend it for cat, which is a dry meat and easily becomes stringy and floury if fried as well as boiled.

I am now in a position to promote dog done alla Toscana, which I tried out in Italy last autumn after a huntsman foolishly shot his own hound. I roasted a haunch in the oven with olive oil, garlic and rosemary. My house guest considered it a great success. Sadly, owing to the lack of rosemary and olive oil in the Philippines provinces it would be hard to introduce this taste sensation there. I feel something very good might also be done with a stuffing of basil, prunes and lemon, held together with mustard flour. Certain Italian friends affect horror – as do some of my Filipino friends – but this is a received response and not based on experience. (Hypocritical, too, since dog meat is still occasionally smoked in the Italian Alps). It’s the old argument of the ayatollahs who hadn’t read a line of Rushdie. “Oh, taste and see,” is the reasonable response.

In any case, cane alla Toscana suggests a whole range of possibilities using exotic ingredients but in a European style. I am familiar with adobong sawa, which is python, and am eager to invent python steaks in Trieste fashion, with white wine and anchovy fillets. They would be fabulous. But alas, it is an idle dream. The most one could hope for here in Europe would be an occasional adder stew with shallots.

The Philippine provinces also have some unusual culinary specialities which, for sheer inventiveness, are a tribute to the human spirit. There is a dish from the mountain provinces that requires a chicken to be plucked before it is beaten slowly to death with spoons. The theory runs that the beating mobilizes subcutaneous fat as well as breaking the capillaries, and produces a flushed, creamy texture.

I have to report – regretfully, in view of the bird’s protracted demise – that in my case it was all for nothing since it tasted to me like roast chicken by any other name. Evidently my palate is still poorly educated. I gather the Ewondo of Cameroon use a similar method on plump dogs, which are tied up and tenderized for a day with small canes before they are cooked in a complicated nine-hour procedure. In any case, readers wishing to try for themselves this method of preparing a chicken are urged to use nothing heavier than one of those light wooden spoons from Habitat. The point is not to break any bones.

Also, the sensitive are advised that even in the cheerful outdoor context of tribal cookery the scene is not without its pitiful aspects. I suppose the bird might be given an anaesthetic; yet this would violate the no-chemicals rule.

Also from the north is pinik-pilkan, which I have yet to try. It, too, starts with a chicken being beaten to death, this time with its clothes on. Once dead it is briefly roasted in its feathers before being cut up and cooked in the normal fashion. A tasty combination is for it to be mixed with itag, which is belly of pork dried and packed in salt in earthenware crocks until it becomes maggoty. This, when cooked with the chastised hen, yields a greeny-greyish sauce described as “hearty”. The sum of its parts is apparently far greater than their individual promise.

Buro dishes, a Pangasinan speciality, are also something I have never eaten. Buro refers to a way of pickling in brine. One celebrated version starts with a stew of pickled vegetables which is allowed to cool before being fed to a dog that has been starved for a couple of days. The dog wolfs it down and after an interval, someone gives the animal a special blow behind the ribs with the edge of the hand which induces immediate vomiting. The regurgitated stew is caught in a bowl, re-cooked with additional herbs and eaten. The dog, which is more cross than injured, is rewarded with a meal which this time it is allowed to digest completely.

A friend who has tried this dish, as well as another version involves fermenting fish and rice in a crock for several weeks, says buro is something you need to acquire a taste for, like kimchi, the Koreans’ pickled vegetables. Yet another Pangasinan dish involves a goat being fed as much grass as it will eat before it is killed and cooked with the grass still inside. The grass-filled stomach is allegedly delicious.

There is a range of papaitan dishes from Ilocos (pait means bitter) which have percolated south to the extent that one can find workers’ restaurants in Manila specialising in them.

A good papaitan will present an interesting taste to a European who is otherwise accustomed to bitterness only in tonic water, or in vegetables like chicory. It is well worth trying and nothing like as bitter as it sounds – far less so than some varieties of Italian salad greens, for instance.

I returned from my trip up north to my home village to find somebody’s birthday being celebrated with an old favourite – a brilliant campfire version of duck à l’orange called patotin. The duck is lightly spit-roasted and then transferred to a large iron saucepan, in the bottom of which is a bed of the Chinese fermented black beans which come in tins. A bottle of Sprite is added (though Fanta is equally satisfactory) as well as a large lump of ice. The ice slows down the cooking – heat control is always a problem with an open fire. After an hour or so the patotin is ready.

Free range duck is delicious in any case; but what makes this dish is the fizzy-drink-sweetened black bean sauce.

It used to be obligatory to end a food article by quoting the 18th-century French lawyer and gastronome, Brillat-Savarin, “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, et je te dirai ce que tu es” (Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are). I haven’t the least idea what he meant. What kind of judgment was he threatening to make? A class one? Racial? Nationalistic? Economic? Religious? Or merely implying a confident assertion of his own bon goût?

However, if he meant,“You are a curious traveler, soon to be dead and happy to try anything once,” one might allow the old fraud some points. The only form of abuse I remember without pleasure from my schooldays is gastronomic. It is a reminder that we come from a culture which thought nothing of giving Spam fritters to impressionable children. We owe it to ourselves to put our cast-iron digestions to better use, and abandon taboo in favour of new taste experiences.

Any visitor to Manila wishing to do the same might make a good start by dining at Patio Mequeni, a restaurant near Remedios Circle in Malate. Nothing too outrageous, but an interesting range of regional Filipino dishes.

The deep-fried mole crickets to nibble with a cold San Miguel as one waits for the main course are highly recommended, and would have made Vincent Holt’s evening. They rustle agreeably on the plate but are still squidgy and peanutty inside.

Dog-fanciers, on the other hand, will have to ask around, since the restaurants they are looking for tend to lie outside the touristy areas. If you find a taxi-driver who pretends not o understand, you can convince him by telling him you’re looking for aw-aw (rhymes with bow-wow). You can’t get clearer than that.

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